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    “Community” Season 5 Feels Like An Old Friend Has Finally Come Home

    The long-awaited return of the NBC comedy — now back under the watchful eye of creator Dan Harmon — distances itself from its disappointing fourth season. Gas leak year, people.

    I'll admit that I was somewhat wary when three episodes from Season 5 of NBC's Community surfaced on my desk last week. After all, the fourth season of the Dan Harmon-created gonzo comedy — which was Dan Harmon-less, after all — left a lot to be desired. I choose to look at it as an alt-reality version of a show that I had cherished in its first three seasons: The characters vaguely resembled that Greendale study group with whom I had spent so many virtual hours, yet they didn't feel quite right. Something was off — the plots felt too contrived, and the show wandered into a broadness of comedy that it had previously adamantly avoided.

    Given that, there is quite a lot riding on the Jan. 2 premiere of Community, which sees the return of Harmon as the showrunner of the comedy he created. Fortunately, the three episodes provided to press — Episodes 1, 2, and 4 — go a long way to reassure fans that the show is once more back in the hands of its true caretakers. (Warning: minor spoilers ahead.)

    The fifth season premiere ("Repilot"), written by Harmon and the also returning co-executive producer Chris McKenna, attempts to reestablish Community's identity after the flawed efforts of Season 4, much of which are explained away as a "gas leak year." In fact, the episode — which both comments on the efforts of Scrubs to "repilot" itself in Season 9 and utilizes a similar formatting — distances itself entirely from Season 4, intellectually and creatively. As such, the episode has a lot to accomplish in a relatively brief running time, which might be why "Repilot" feels a little overeager and fraught: It needs to not only bring the study group back to Greendale and back together, but it also has to engineer a reason as to why they decide to stay. Bridges, both literal and metaphorical, are broken and mended.

    In fact, there's a tangible sadness rooted in these characters when we reconnect with them at the start of Season 5, a sense that their dreams of success have been squandered…and that the lives they had planned for themselves after graduating from Greendale have not come to fruition. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a failed strip-mall lawyer whose malaise is reflected in his goatee. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) works as a "modern-day therapist," or bartender. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) attempted to expand her sandwich empire, only to lose it all, including her family. Annie (Alison Brie) isn't a hospital administrator; she pushes pharmaceuticals (and pens) upon medical care facilities. Abed (Danny Pudi) is attempting to create a new social networking app…and bestie Troy (Donald Glover) is riding on his coattails. (Glover will appear only in five episodes of Season 5, which is addressed in the premiere with Troy bemoaning the selfishness of Scrubs star Zach Braff leaving his show after six episodes of the repiloted ninth season.)

    NBC has asked that critics not reveal how or why Jeff opts to stay at Greendale (despite this being depicted in promos), so I won't spoil that (obvious) point; I will say, however, that there is a reason why he remains at the community college alongside the study group and why the group expands to include Jonathan Banks' gruff criminology professor Buzz Hickey. Ken Jeong also returns as Ben Chang, and the show very quickly ties up his Changnesia arc from Season 4 while simultaneously mocking it and several other bizarre plot points from last year's run.

    The two subsequent episodes that NBC sent out — Andy Bobrow's "Introduction to Teaching" and the Alex Rubens-written "Cooperate Polygraphy" (the season's fourth installment) — point toward Community having recaptured its magic. After the story engine is jump-started in "Repilot," the show feels very much like an old friend has come home after a long absence. There is a sense that he is older (though not necessarily wiser) and that he's lived through some changes (both good and bad), but in his heart, he is still the same person he was before.

    Season 5 feels intrinsically like the early years of Community; there's a great deal of care involved in planning out the arcs of these individual characters. If you squint closely enough, you can see the story "embryos" gestating already, those narrative algorithms that Harmon utilizes so well. There's an inherent sense of Harmon-ian logic at play here as well.

    Bobrow's "Introduction to Teaching" finds the group members struggling to regain their momentum in the face of change and to claim their new situation. Pudi gives a particularly amazing performance when Abed channels Nicholas Cage while attempting to solve the riddle of whether Cage is a good actor or a bad one. (This is one koan designed for no less than a Zen master to untangle. "Always Be Cageing" indeed.) Brie's Annie causes a riot when she learns that she deserves "slightly higher grades," an incident that allows the show to feature several members of its expansive cast of characters. (Magnitude, Leonard, Garrett, and Fat Neil all appear.)

    "Cooperative Polygraphy" is a beautifully strange bottle episode that forces the gang to confront some hard truths about one another as well as themselves, but the episode never feels claustrophobic or thin. Instead, this superlative installment sees the group take a polygraph test to its most extreme outcome, investigating casual and profound truths of character and identity. It is about mortality, morality, and hope; it is about the notion that we're no better or worse than those around us. (It also features Walton Goggins in a truly fantastic performance as the enigmatic Mr. Stone, who issues a Faustian bargain of sorts to the group.) It's here that Troy confronts an unexpected destiny and perhaps takes a step toward becoming a man. (That this particular plot point also engineers Glover's departure helps smooth over the rationale for why Troy and Abed would split up, as it were.)

    In their own way, these episodes harken back to the Community pilot episode (there are concrete callbacks thanks to Abed, of course) and to the progression of events of the last few seasons to reflect on the journey that these characters have taken; how did Jacobs' Britta go from anarchist rebel to the gang's resident "airhead"? How many breakdowns did Abed have on campus? Who is using Jeff's Netflix account? Why are these seemingly disparate individuals still bound together by such strong invisible threads? With these episodes, there is a sense that a restart button has been pushed just as much as there is a combustive leap forward.

    And, yes — SPOILER ALERT! — the study room table is destroyed by a fire (semi-accidentally) and a new one built in its place, the "Mark II," a transformation/re-creation that's overtly emblematic of the show itself. This is, after all, a second start for Community, and these stellar and imaginative episodes point toward a return to climbing the comedic heights that the show once occupied. So suit up, Human Beings, and welcome back to the dizzying and vast space of Harmon-ian imagination.

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    Community returns Jan. 2 at 8 p.m. on NBC.